It is a little difficult to watch a film like L'Assault and not feel a knot in your stomach. Here is a film about the 1994 Christmas hijacking of Air France Flight 8969 by Middle Eastern terrorist in an attempt (French Intellegence said) to take over the plane and fly it into The Eiffel Tower. Their plan was thwarted by deliberate delays by Air Traffic Control that allowed the GIGA (the French equivalent of the S.W.A.T. team) to move in. The knot in our stomachs come from the fact that this is such a current and all-too-real situation that plays in our minds a decade after the events of September 11th. Even if you know how these events played out, the tension that the film creates is present and very effective.
Shot in bleached-out colors with a hand-held camera, French director Julien Leclercq keeps his film spare on personal details. He walks a very fine line between sticking to the facts and turning the material into an action picture. He mixes two elements very well, so that the material never feels overblown or exploitive. He knows very well how to draw tension from his viewer. The opening scenes are the most effective as we watch the terrorists preparing for their mission, praying, gathering their weapons and their explosives, and trying to keep their minds on their task. We follow the terrorists all the way from their meeting point to the plane where they pose as agents before being discovered by one very observant passenger. That's when all Hell breaks loose.
We've seen those scenes before with all the shouting, threats, demands and cowering passengers, but what makes the scene work is that there is real fear coming from the terrorists themselves. Leclercq's camera often gets very close to their eyes so that we can see that while they are focused on their task, they are still scared out of their minds. The focal point on the terrorist side rests with an angry young fellow named Yahia (Aymen Saïdi), the leader whose anger and frustration at not getting what he wants (there's a long bit of business about the fact that the plane can't take off because no one will move the stairs) makes him effective and very scary. One thing that I didn't expect was a heart-wrenching development late in the film when someone very close to him begs him to reconsider this whole terrorist plot. Films like this rarely give the terrorist a human dimension.
Parallel to the scenes of the terrorist plot is another story, that of a GIGA member named Thierry (Vincent Elbaz) whose wife is terrified when he goes out on a job. We don't get to know him or his family in great detaill, but their story plays as an emotional center to what is going on from the side of the French. We know all we need to know. He's on the job. She's afraid for him. We don't need much more exposition than that. That's the most effective element of the film. It plays out in reality without slowing down for character development. You don't need it. All we need are the facts at hand. This element of the film is smart on the part of the director because since we know how the story concludes, Thierry's story adds a suspenseful, and unexpected element.
The movie has a slow build-up to the final assault by the GIGA and, unlike most action pictures, earns its ending. Leclercq does a very good job of staging the action scenes in a confined space with no heroics in sight. This works especially well if you don't already know how it turned out. What he has for us at the end is quite unexpected.
L'Assault is, I'm afraid, is going to inevitably draw comparison to Paul Greengrass' United 93. His was the better film - I chose it as my favorite film of 2006. It works more efficiently because of its spareness and because of our heavy emotional investment in the events of September 11th. I don't know as much about the events in L'Assault. That doesn't make them any less significant, but it makes the emotional weight just a little lighter. Comparing the two is really not fair anyway. The success of United 93 lay in its cold, straight-ahead vision. L'Assault is a little more cinematic and develops characters, both good and bad just enough so that we are invested in what is happening because they are people that we understand a little bit about. We know the events that took place. We know how they turned out. What is frightening is that even when the terrorists fail, we know with dread, that they'll be back.